CHICAGO — For her first major survey in the United States, Otobong Nkanga shows her largest set of works on paper to date, revealing a practice invested in seeing the earth as a dynamic living thing. Beyond ecology or environmentalism, her work brings together mythology from her birthplace in Nigeria and a constructive critique of anthropocentricism. To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, imagines anti-monuments to the exploitation of the earth and symbolic reconciliatory actions we might take.
Confronting humanity’s irreversible impact on the natural world — climate change and species’ extinction — is inevitably fraught as a subject of art, which can hardly pretend to be a tangibly effective tool of reversal. Unlike many artists wrestling with the same ideas, Nkanga doesn’t attempt to illustrate science or to imagine any unattainable utopia, but instead focuses on the human cost of our blasé attitude toward our home.
Throughout the tapestries and works on paper, figures appear dismembered and limbless, perhaps industrialized as tools of production and environmental exploitation themselves, but also bloodied and handicapped by the fracturing of the earth on which they stand. The artist goes beyond recycling, delving into the poetry of the earth and of our bodies existing as part of the fabric of nature.
Nkanga is especially concerned with mineral exploitation and many of her projects and works focus on the mining of these resources in Africa. One historical injustice she wrestles with is how colonization was not just occupation but the wholesale robbery of foreign lands, at the expense of native people. She emphasizes the tragic truth that Africans were seen as resources themselves, ravaged along with their land. To compensate for this, the bodies in the artworks are hybridized with the earth and its resources, and activated through performative reconciliatory actions.
Her multi-part installation, “In Pursuit of Bling,” (2014-2016) occupies a large section of the floor in the MCA’s biggest gallery with tapestries, a light box, minerals, video, and other elements making up the whole. One of the elements is a video called “Reflections of the Raw Green Crown,” (2015) in which the artist performs for the camera in front of copper-domed churches in Berlin wearing a raw copper hat. She becomes the voice of the mineral that was mined in Africa until entire habitats were decimated — the steep cost of European industry and economic growth thanks to colonialism.
Beyond proposing imaginary reconciliation, some of Nkanga’s works include growing crystals, minerals, and organic materials like tobacco and coca. Furthermore, her work “Carved to Flow,” (2017) originally presented for documenta 14 where it was widely lauded, move from the conceptual to the real with actual constructive systems [constructing what?]. The project was conceived as a model for a circular economy that would produce no waste.
She created the Carved to Flow Foundation headquartered in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria, which will receive “support for researching material cultures and fostering shared experimentation and exchange locally” with the profits from the sales generated by the project, according to the project’s website. Initially for documenta 14, and now at Chicago’s MCA, costumed performers sell black bars of soap called “08 Black Stone.” The costumes serve as a “a shop founded on the body,” says the artist. Performers literally wear the symbolic shop, which is a garment designed with tiered platforms where the soap is displayed. The soap is made with charcoal and oils from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa, and it’s displayed at the museum in black towers reminiscent of the mineral piles and paintings elsewhere in the exhibition. The soap shop and factory were designed as self-sustainable, constructive ongoing artworks.
Nkanga does something more nuanced and subtle in her paintings on view at the MCA too. One foundation of her work involves breaking down and separating resources from the earth into piles, sculptures, and symbols — her focus is largely on the gross material. This approach is effective, though obtuse and objective, at times too literal or illustrative for deeper meanings to become apparent. One could easily miss it, but in her works on paper she plays the same game, often leaving a palette of colors in one corner of the work, and sometimes displaying the palettes as artworks themselves. Many artists have included their color palettes in paintings, so Nkanga is referencing a historical trope, but upon further looking it becomes evident that part of the action is an extension of her dividing colors into their corresponding minerals and organic compounds, as if to show the viewer what the painting is actually made of at a fundamental level.
As the title suggests, To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again is an analogy for the insatiable hunger of mechanization and industry, for the false promises of modernity, which we are collectively only beginning to realize fell short of its ideals. Nkanga illuminates the long shadow cast by conquest and colonialism, and their ongoing legacies. She also brings a magical relationship with earth back to life, showing that relationship to fundamentally exist at odds with global capitalism — a realization more important than ever if we are to recapture hope for the future.
Otobong Nkanga To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again is on view at the MCA Chicago (220 E Chicago Avenue) until September 2.